Disclosure of what happened to Serenity, Kelsey and other Oklahoma children like them generated public outcry that precipitated a federal class-action lawsuit and current efforts to reform the state's child welfare system.
According to Brown's May 9 letter, state officials should not have released information about DHS contacts with those children, other than information about the specific incidents that caused their deaths.
That narrow interpretation of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act has outraged child welfare reformers.
“If the federal government is going to mandate that in death and near death cases we have to report information publicly, then they've got to allow the states to disclose the whole picture and not some arbitrary, small fragment of what really happened,” Nelson said. “That is irresponsible.”
“We're convinced that the confidential nature of these cases is what's contributed to a lot of tragedy,” Nelson said. “It's what's allowed a lot of things to go wrong for a long time.”
Nelson said he has asked federal officials for a legal opinion and case law on how to interpret the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, but has not yet received the information.
Nelson said he firmly believes that more disclosure, not less, is in the best interest of children. Nelson said he doesn't believe lawmakers would support any law that would do like the letter suggests make less information about child abuse histories available to the public.
“The public disclosure law that we've had so far doesn't go far enough, but it was very important in getting us to the point where we could do the kind of reform that we are doing,” he said. “What we've been working on the past few weeks is a really strong, robust public disclosure bill that we ... believe could become a national model law.”
“This is a big deal, but it's also a lot of money,” he said. “I don't know the total amount, but it's well in excess of $50 million that could be at stake.”
Weichel said national child welfare reformers are scrambling to respond to the letter.
The national impact of the letter could be “huge,” she said.
There are many other states that have interpreted federal law to allow the release of as much or more information than Oklahoma, she said.
They all thought the point of the law was “to figure out if the system failed these kids,” she said.
“In the sense that we need to know everything that happened to this kid and this family in order to know if something could have been done to prevent the death or the near death, we have to look at everything that led up to this incident,” she said.
“The fact that they're now saying that you can't look at anything beyond the final act of abuse or neglect that killed this kid — it's huge and it's unfathomable,” Weichel said. “We are definitely going to be taking some action.”
Doerflinger, Oklahoma's interim DHS director, issued a prepared statement that said DHS officials will work with federal officials on the issue.
“We intend to work with the Administration for Children and Families to ascertain if the state is implementing programs in a manner that is consistent with federal law and to the extent that program improvement is needed to bring the state into compliance,” Doerflinger said.